Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Tipping Point

Adventures in Fine Dining

As the fine dining room slows and the remaining guests saunter out, the manager’s choice of rough-edged house music patiently waits its turn at the speakers.  Beer, the preferred wrap-up beverage of fine dining servers, performs its nightly workout of soothing staff whilst they hash out the evening’s adventures.  Tonight’s fodder: a diner who wrote “Sorry single mom” in her bill’s tip field would no doubt be a gem of a story to pass around, according to a recent post on Reddit. Leave it to the viral social media to explode one of these little dramas into national exposure.

In the past I was a bit of a bastard when it came to tipping.  I played a game of “Save Your Tip.”  Each restaurant experience began with a full gratuity of 15%.  From the time I walked in, the tip monitor was active.  Make me wait at the host stand too long, lose one-half percent.  Forget to fill my water, just lost another half percent.  Even conditions out of the server’s control like an unclean bathroom, food that was slow to arrive or a dining room that was too hot yielded punishment.  For me each meal was some kind of weird reality show where an unknowing server was subject to my judgment.  Sure you could earn your way back toward that magical 15% and beyond, but it was a hard road a’hoe!

My misguided attitude toward tipping stemmed from not working for tips until I was well into my thirties. My income as an investment professional during my twenties was often based on commissions.  One could argue that a commission and tip are similar in that if you do the work, you earn your payment.  But the key difference is that with commissions, there’s no flexibility.  Your payment is well defined before the service is executed.

Fast forward to my thirties when I entered the wine business via retail and eventually ended up working alongside servers in a fine dining restaurant.  It didn’t take long to get the message loud and clear: 20% is the industry standard, never less.  I can imagine for those who have not worked in restaurants this seems a bit dictatorial.  But I can tell you from experience, this is what servers expect, especially in a fine dining establishment.

And as diner, if you don’t meet this standard, it will be noticed. At best, bad tippers receive a lower standard of care and diligence.  At worst, the repercussions could be more distasteful.  Whatever the ramifications of bad tipping, you can rest assured that unaccommodating patrons receive ill wishes among the wait staff at the back of the house “water cooler.”

The Devil’s Contract?

Isn’t a tip optional and should there be an expectation that a server must earn it?  In my experience the answer is No and Yes. Tipping is not optional to many servers, your tip is required as a matter of honor.  To the average server, part of the unwritten understanding between diner and waiter is that the server is not being paid a living wage by the restaurant.  For those who’d suggest that a restaurant pay a better wage, consider that all restaurant expenses eventually pass through and you’d end up paying less tip and more for the meal.

So ultimately in the mind of a server the onus is on diner to compensate.  The expectation for this service is at least 20% of the check.  Anything less is often seen as stealing, much the same way as if you shorted your accountant or lawyer for their professional services.  It would seem customer practices tend to support this line of thinking.  According to a Zagat survey of the nations finest restaurants conducted in 2012, the average tip on a full service restaurant bill is 19.2%.

Most servers agree that they should earn their tip.  But while in my misguided youth I started with a figure and deducted for bad service, waiters often consider a 20% gratuity to be a minimum amount for performing their work adequately.  In fact, many servers expect more than 20% if a diner requires extraordinary service or attention.

The Service Dilemma

In the US, the restaurant service is not often considered a true profession. This is in direct contrast to many European countries where service is a dedicated profession pursued and recognized.  But here, unskilled labor comes to mind.  This is unfortunate because an experienced and talented server can be an incredible asset.

Perhaps it’s this lack of recognition for the service profession that crates a shortage of career minded people in restaurant service positions.  Indeed many fine dining restaurants experience a crisis in finding and keeping high quality servers.  For those that do chose restaurant service as a career path, they usually are forced to make a choice.

A talented server my step out of the tip pool and into management?  The immediate ramifications are reduced income, more hours and extra responsibility.  What’s the upside?  It’s the hope of senior management and even ownership.

Or a talented server may choose to revel in the sweet manna of cash tips and the comfort of less responsibility when compared to their bosses.  This choice has its advantages and while the work of any server is intense, one can make a fine living as a skilled server.  The downside is that until that server steps into management, there will always be the static ceiling height.

The implications of these career path choices are important because the best talent in the food service business either evolves into management or languishes in a position surrounded by non-career minded servers who may view the “professionals” as bane to their very existence, how fleeting that may be.  I believe the end result is a lower level of overall service for the guest.  We can circle back to that 2012 Zagat survey that identified service as the number one complaint issue for guests in fine dining restaurants.

Obviously service is a core issue for the fine dining industry and one that demands recognition.  I’d like to think that restaurateurs can tackle the problem progressively and find an answer to the question: When guests offer a tip, what is the purpose of this act?  Is it obligation, recognition, gratitude or some combination of the three?

Do the Right Thing

I started my tipping methodology as Punisher:  Removing basis points from tips as errors accumulated.  This attitude grew from a place of not understanding the nature of service and the inspiration of expressing thanks via tipping.

I evolved into Obliger: Servers received 20% because that’s the industry standard and I’d offer more if the service was excellent.  But I gave my tips because it was expected of me.

Today I’ve become Recognizer:  I accept that a 20% gratuity is the industry standard.  But I offer at least this amount because I understand the value and work that goes into good service.  I do my best to allow a server to care for me and my guests and to focus not on their work (good service it is said is invisible) but on the experience of sharing this encounter with my guests.  And most importantly when I fill in my gratuity and sign the bill, I feel the pure joy of expressing gratitude for the wonderful experience that is fine dining.

 

GUY and Tina, Partners
PROTOCOL wine studio

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Bayesian Bottle Memoirs

Bayesian Bottle Memoirs.


Bayesian Bottle Memoirs

Anyone can drink a glass of wine and spew words to describe it. Sometimes they publish this opinion and call themselves experts.  Worse yet, occasionally people believe them.

Wine reviewing has become a convoluted world, where critics hide behind words and subjective opinions rather than speaking wine facts. Worse yet all too often wine reviews also miss sharing the soul of the wine drinking experience.  Instead they focus on why their opinion is more relevant than your perceptions and individual experience.

All too often wine drinkers sop up the common wine review, because they think anyone with such acute senses must be right. This point was made rather well by The Economist entitled “How to Lie about Wine.”

Blood is Thicker than Wine

GUY and I are always trying to figure out how best to talk about wine because inevitably we’re asked what we think of this or that.  With both of us trained in how to taste and communicate our findings, we’ve come to the distinct conclusion that it’s not so much about finding the most esoteric verbiage to describe a wine.  Rather we revel in the story that’s in the glass because let’s face it folks, who wants to taste a descriptor like “ox blood.”

So are we being duped into believing that if we can’t taste what a critic tastes, our palates are faulty? I came across a blog recently named HoseMaster of Wine by wine industry man Ron Washam. It appears Ron believes that’s just what’s happening. He describes the current state of wine reviews by writing, “All the wine rags spend a lot of energy trying to convince you that it’s in your best interest to read the descriptions. Why? They’re boring. Fortune cookies have fewer words, more literary value, and far more truth.” He makes a rather poignant point.  Most wine reviews are commonplace and offer no true informational value.

But is information truly what we need?  Can we tolerate a purely esoteric wine review?  One of GUY’s favorite wine review websites is The Red Wine Haiku Review.  It’s here that author Lane Steinberg elevates the wine review to pure emotion using the traditional haiku format.  Lane says of his work, “These haikus provide a quick blast of an impression without getting too specific. If the haikus are good, you should be able to taste them in your mind.”

Tenuta Sette Ponti Crognolo 2010 (Italy)

A right to the jaw
The champ is flat on the mat
Slowly, he rises

William Hill Bench Blend Cabernet 2007 (California)

In California
They take meetings in hot tubs
As the fog rolls in

Surh Luchtel Syrah 2005 (California)

An enormous room
Light pours in through a skylight
Onto the soft bed

GUY loves the pure emotional context of these reviews.  The brevity requirement of the review format forces Lane to focus on the experience of the wine.  And the more you learn about wine, the more you come to see it’s truly all about the experience.

By using a formulaic approach that highlights brevity and emotion, Lane explores a style of wine review that stands in direct opposition to the style de rigueur.  Where Lane deals in artistic obscurity, most wine writers follow in the footsteps of the “nortorious” RP–expansive in his perceptions of scents and flavors in a wine.  But if Lane’s work has a downfall, it’s marketability.  Put a haiku review shelf tag next to a 90 Points RP blessed shelf tag to see which moves.

One of the few wine publications I read regularly nowadays is Sommelier Journal, where my former wine instructor, David Glancy, Master Sommelier is Advisory Board Member and contributing writer.  I’m a big fan of his wine reviews and I’ve included one below:

2010 La Crotta di Vegneron Fumin Esprit Follet, Vallée d’Aoste $35 

The Valle d’Aosta appellation lies in the foothills of the Italian Alps at the French border, just north of Piedmont. Fumin is an indigenous grape that, since being rescued from extinction in the 1980s, has more commonly been used for blending than for single-varietal bottlings. The Esprit Follet shows an almost inky color that runs from ruby to purple. Black-pepper, anise, and rose scents lead to cassis, plum, and tart cherry on the palate, supplemented by lingering toasted oak and iron-and-gravel minerality. The wine is medium bodied, with bright acidity and slightly coarse tannins; meaty and savory, it begs for hearty fare like veal stroganoff. Importer: Villa Italia Wines, www.villaitaliawines.com .

DAVID GLANCY, MS, CWE, CSS, FWS 
Founder and CEO San Francisco Wine School 

What I admire about David’s writing is his succinctness with just the right amount of descriptive words and history. Right away he identifies the wine region, which for this Italian wine could be the simplest and most important information to convey.  From there he hits the varietal with a brief history (folks like to know what they’re dealing with.) Then he smoothly expresses his interpretation of the wine itself, using simple descriptors, including the wine’s body and a possibility for food matching.  Of the many different wine reviewers I’ve read, I think David is spot on.

Fortune of Cookies

Reviewing a wine can be a little tricky as we’ve seen.  The closest we’ve come to understanding the current industry standard can be outlined in some simple bullets:

Provide details on the label: A good way to start
Convey the history: Couldn’t hurt
Inject some humor: Absolutely
Be creative: Sets the mood
Blatantly lie about the contents of the glass: It’s often done!

So is that the recipe?  A dash of whimsy, a pinch of embellishment and a handful of credentials?  With a combination like this, the possibilities are endless, but stay away from “ox blood”—that wins no friends.  As for PROTOCOL, we’re working on our own approach to reviewing wine—drinking, and maybe a little trust in the fortune cookie.

Tina and GUY, Partners
PROTOCOL wine studio


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